High Pulp’s Bobby Granfelt on Jazz Band’s Drive to Thrive
The first time I spoke with drummer Bobby Granfelt of High Pulp, we were sitting two feet apart.
It’s late June 2021, nearly a year and a half after Covid made landfall in Seattle, and a sense of renewed life has temporarily taken hold in the area. In the afternoon, the sun becomes a punisher, hitting the bodies like skin stretched over a drum. In his baggy tie-dye sweatshirt, Granfelt seems to be holding up the sun just fine, but I can feel my skin burning, so we took refuge in the shade of a large brick apartment with a ground-floor cafe.
This is where our friendship really began. On days when I fired countless ristretto shots, he would come in, order a French press and answer emails at a cramped wooden desk in the corner. From time to time, we would talk about the music playing through the speakers, especially what we both enjoy: artists like Yussef Kamaal and Alfa Mist who captivated global audiences for their tremendous technicality and haunting atmosphere. – the same music it was, and probably forever. be, being refined.
We don’t meet just out of nostalgia. Granfelt – along with teammate Andy Morrill, who kindly chimes in at times during our conversation – is in the area to carry a free set of cozy blankets for market customers. As drummer, Granfelt is not their de facto leader, but he will be their speaker – the only one ready to address the half-committed market crowd.
“It’s the first week they’ve had [live] music since the pandemic,” he says, his citrus-tinted sunglasses obscuring his sleepy eyes. It will only be a quartet this afternoon, but the tunes will be simple and the attention they receive will be irrelevant. “We just came here to play music today. We don’t make money, it’s a donation.
A free set of music after a year of cancellations of DOA tours and show dates isn’t just a freebie; it is a sacrifice. Granfelt, like almost every other musician, suffered at a time when work was virtually non-existent. But as we speak, he professes that playing free games is just another way to fuel his respect for his community. Although he prefers not to publicize it, Granfelt lives and breathes compassion for the people around him, whether they play with him or stomp on his razor-sharp snare drum.
“In a way, it made me selfish,” he says of the symbiotic effect of performing live. “I come out of one of these jams and I feel alive. More alive than I did playing in front of five hundred people. The most vital thing for me during my time in Seattle was those jams.
There never seems to be a time when Granfelt rests on his laurels. He is always pursuing a project or practicing his talent, tapping on a pad at home with a metronome. That’s why I’ve come to know him as someone terminally exhausted, his eyes heavy with contented drowsiness. Music, whether his own or that of others, has become his raison d’être. That’s especially true when he’s playing free gigs like the one coming up in about an hour.
“These concerts inspire me, make me really vulnerable, force me to be transparent”, he summarizes. “It’s a good way to control yourself. It’s like, “Why are you doing this?” I’m not trying to start hoarding this shit, especially when things start to go well. Look how many things have gone really well for a lot of people and then they get unhappy and/or start making horrible music, and I don’t want any of those things to happen to me. I try to stay grounded, and that’s it.
We discuss a lot of things, but the most important is High Pulp, the DIY jazz collective he leads. After years of languishing in the Seattle underground, the band finally found a home at ANTI-Records in Los Angeles, a label home to releases from Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, Fleet Foxes and Wilco. It’s a good fit for High Pulp’s brand of instrumental sonic exploration. The signing marks the first taste of larger-scale success for High Pulp since its debut years ago. In true Pacific Northwest fashion, they’ve resisted the call of the industry, but of course such a move will expose their sound to a much wider audience.
This sound has no easy comparison, but it is based on modal jazz and the “future” monikers it has received over the past few decades. Like almost all “post-internet” bands, High Pulp is a wild amalgamation of influences, but they don’t land easily on any particular pastiche. The band carries a few signature sound elements – twin keyboards and a host of harmonizing horns – that fit into a plethora of molds like modular puzzle pieces. Look no further than their Mutual attraction series, a trio of cover EPs on which they cook a meal from classics by Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Casiopea, Pharaoh Sanders and Frank Ocean circa 2016 Unending. Their originals, meanwhile, dance and weave around the bounce of bebop and the sensuality of instrumental R&B without ever quite landing on one style. This is how they came to be defined as an “exploratory” jazz outlet.
Granfelt and a handful of friends, including Antoine Martel, alto saxophonist Morrill and guitarist Gehrig Uhles, founded the band shortly after graduating from college and have since added a host of backing vocalists along the way. Although the band’s onstage numbers fluctuate wildly between sets – up to 12 people can grace the stage at any given time – the decision makers you hear on the band’s latest come from a few key players. Rounding out the core lineup are tenor saxophonist Victory Nguyen, keyboardist Rob Homan and bassist Scott Rixen, making High Pulp a core six-member band capable of democratically crafting arrangements and controlling everyone’s ego.
Morrill, for his part, attests to this. “It’s democratic in the sense that we don’t make decisions without consensus,” he says. Adds Granfelt, “There are a handful of times where it’s like, ‘I’m going to trust you on this.’ This is a very important thing, having six people agree on things happens a remarkable amount of time in our group.
While they began their career playing humble sets in countless venues across the city, the collective eventually found the opportunity to hone their live dynamics. Thanks to Granfelt’s booking work, the gang was able to secure a weekly residency at the Royal Room, a small but reliable venue just down the street from where we sit. Every Wednesday night, those who were available to play took to the stage and jammed to the collection of originals and standards from their repertoire. It’s not Dimitriou’s or The Triple Door – Columbia City is a relative distance from the metropolis of Seattle – but it allows the neighborhood, via word of mouth, to spread what the band was up to.
After an exhausting day, closing the store alone and running out of energy to board the 106 back to Renton, I’d rather walk a few blocks down the street and watch the group work for advice. There you can sit back, sip a gin and tonic and soak up the subtle differences between each set. They started “Serena Williams” with a slower build-up, or they extended “Hookai” into a ten-minute jam during which the two keyboardists duel synths. A slower, funky number called “Ezell’s” — named after the famous Central District chicken joint — swirled wispy around Rixen’s bass intro, the sound floating out the open door like the seeds of poplar trees.
It’s important to contextualize these nights within the humble confines of Seattle nightlife. The dearth of round-the-clock joints in the city, not to mention the terminally soggy weather, normally hampers the initiative of its residents to take advantage of its offerings after sunset. But you can count on High Pulp Residency to at least meet other music-inclined people and experience a group of talents working in tandem towards self-improvement, working on the crowd as if acted as a whetstone. One evening, while hanging out with a few familiar faces – a young band manager and a cellist with a private studio in the area – we studied how the band had gotten into “Smooth.” During the intermission, the young manager frowned. “They’re good,” he remarked, “but they’re missing something.”
That was almost five years ago. Since then, High Pulp has ceased playing residency but has established itself as a Seattle stalwart worthy of the attention of the city at large. Their operations came to a head in 2020 as they independently released a feature film, burned a set at KEXP’s in-person studio, and booked a spot at SXSW for the first time. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, Covid forced them to retreat to Seattle and redesign their expectations.
In the wake of their signing to ANTI- and the eventual release of their first non-indie LP, Granfelt tells me he’s considering a move to Los Angeles. While that makes sense, the news is slightly ominous. It’s become a dark slogan in this city that “hit” Seattle artists don’t really exist; If they have the ambition and the flair, they just move to a place like Los Angeles. Several talented artists who have already adopted the city’s identity – Gifted Gab, DoNormaal and Chastity Belt among others – have done just that.
For Granfelt, it’s more about keeping his soul sane and intact than potentially letting go of his ties to Seattle’s music scene. “Community stuff, man…I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s cool that you see me that way, but I don’t even want to be seen that way. I just want to be happy and play with my friends and make music. I want to sleep well.
He’s laughing. “Honestly, I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, this person thinks I’m a good community guy, so I don’t need to do this tonight.’ Nobody. You always want to be front row of the show. You always want to be there for the opening, you know? You always have to tip your bartender, motherfucker.